Tag Archives: Hungarian

CAPSULE: DAMNATION (1988)

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DIRECTED BY: Béla Tarr

FEATURING: Székely B. Miklós, Vali Kerekes, Gyula Pauer

PLOT: Karrer pines for a married nightclub singer and passes along a smuggling opportunity to her husband.

COMMENTS: The subdued tragedy, utter pointlessness, and active ennui that oozes from this beautifully shot film is probably Damnation‘s goal. From its opening shot of coal bins slowly traveling along a suspended wire track to its closing shot of a mound of earth littered with barbed-wire-looking roots, there’s a great heap of scant going on, with the vivaciousness provided only by the (comparatively) seductive and jaunty film score. It is arguable there is beauty to be found within Damnation; it is inarguable that the viewer is provided countless minutes to keep an eye out for it.

Karrer (Székely B. Miklós) is introduced by his favorite past-time: silently observing full bins of coal traveling off in one direction and empty bins traveling in the opposite. He stares out his window; then we stare at him as he stares into a mirror, shaving. He has an awkward encounter with a woman through a chained gap in a door; she claims to have had enough of him, he claims he should be let inside. A jolly bartender (Gyula Pauer, the only ray of light in the overcast cast) chats amiably with Karrer about the slow destruction of body and soul before getting sidetracked from his chuckling existentialism in order to address the actual topic at hand: a parcel needs picking up, and the retriever’s fee is “20%”. (“20% of what?”, some may ask—it matters as much as Hitchcock’s suitcase full of incandescent distraction.) The woman from behind the door is a nightclub singer. Her husband has had enough of Karrer. So what’s the sporting thing to do? Offer the singer’s husband the job and the reward.

The camerawork somehow sludges into fascinating. Under the direction of Gábor Medvigy, the lens practically skulks its way through the film, slinking languidly left to right across sets as (in)action takes place in the fore-, mid-, or back-ground. It idles over unlikely figures, such as the bar’s accordionist noodling through an ambiguous melody; or the waiter snoozing on a chair; or a film extra sitting in absolute stillness amidst rhythmically pacing dancers. This circle of revelers—if one could be so generous as to call them that—is a metaphor, encapsulating Tarr’s obsessive message of cyclical tedium and its inevitable, meaningless disintegration.

Despite my intentions, I appear to be suggesting that something profound occurs in Damnation. Perhaps there is, but the question as to whether this is a story worth telling remains. Toward the end, something of an expectable twist limps from the narrative, and on the heels of that subdued reveal comes what may be the film’s most famous sequence: Karrer’s psychological descent into caninity. But Tarr should take note, as his bartender puts it to protagonist, that “[y]our problem is you see things from your perspective.” A biting societal commentary loses its edge if left to dull for two monotonous hours.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“. Tarr’s fascination with their ennui is profound, and while his statement about them isn’t lacking in visual power and philosophical heft, it’s also questionable whether it’s the strongest statement an artist of his caliber can make.” -Jeremiah Kipp, Slant Magazine

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: CYBERSATAN APOCALYPSE NIGHTMARES (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Niko

FEATURING: Csaba Molnár, Zalán Makranczi, Diána Magdolna Kiss, Niko

PLOT: A hitman takes on a series of jobs delivered to him by a pizza courier.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Hazy dream-noir creeps into every darkened corner of this film as an unnamed hero eases slowly toward sanguine annihilation. That’s the dramatic way to phrase it. More prosaically, Cybersatan Apocalypse Nightmares rides along a weird alleyway of deadpan, hazy narration, zero budget, and big ideas, transporting the viewer to another world of specific details wrapped in general ambiguity.

COMMENTS: Well, that was something: and with a title like Cybersatan Apocalypse Nightmares, it had better be. I cannot rightly say I’m sure what this movie is—not specifically. “Nightmares” is just about right, with its dream-like haziness; “Apocalypse” is implied, with its apparent dystopian setting; the “cyber” prefix is apt, as virtual, augmented, and telephonic reality come under criticism. The “Satan” element fits, too, I suppose. We do meet him, or at least an earthly incarnation of Hellish designs. But Cybersatan Apocalypse Nightmares is far too light-hearted, in its roiling-boiled noir detective kind of way, for the threat of pretension suggested by its title. Of the many things this movie is, pretentious it is not.

It’s almost Christmas, and our protagonist starts out back-footed, having to justify his meat-grilling methods to his video-game entranced son. This man, referred to variously as “killer” and “cop” (Csaba Molnár), has the aged look and cynical wit of a private detective from a century prior, going about his grim business wearing a smirk and a trenchcoat. A cigarette is nearly always jammed between his lips. And he is closely associated with two other consumables: meat, which he eats at every opportunity; and milk, a jug of which he always has in-pocket to administer to each assignment’s final victim. He’s of a mind that things are getting worse, musing that after decades on the job, “we’re at the same place. Or not. Even lower.”

Cybersatan Apocalypse Nightmares draws on and film noir (making this exercise particularly noir-y, as much of Dick’s output was also tinged by that genre). Computers abound—and they are the enemy. Among his semi-random encounters, Cop chastises a handful of Gen Zed kids for living their lives merely staring at their phones. But Cop isn’t much better off than these drones, as he suffers from his own pointless distractions in the form of internal monologues he wishes would just shut up. It is likely we meet the titular “Cybersatan” in the form of the film’s one weak point. Whether it is the direction, the script, or the actor, something is problematic with Zalàn Makranczi’s performance as a Cyber-/Cloud-/Binary-Messiah, but that made his fate all the sweeter to witness.

In the haze of well-made-with-no-money scenes, two stand-outs make me look forward to more from this Niko guy. Cop is driving between assignments, falling asleep behind the wheel. This transitions seamlessly into a dream sequence wherein Cop is gripping a railing at an empty cabaret, passed out, as Cop dressed as a custodian Santa Claus emerges with a broom. (“What is going on?”, you may ask. I have no idea.) The second comes after the bullet-heavy climax, when Cop is absorbed by an 8-bit entity emanating from the massacred computer banks. White lights, black stetson, and our hero takes a seat to ponder the void.

You can visit the Cybersatan Apaocalypse Nightmares homepage for more information, including upcoming festival screenings and future distribution.

17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

Fehérlófia

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“In my animated films the design of every frame is of great importance, as if it would be a painting. Most of the time, and particularly in a mythical, fabulous context, my human characters, even lead characters, are only a minor part of the whole thing.” —Marcell Jankovics

Must See

DIRECTED BY: Marcell Jankovics

FEATURING: Voices of György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth

PLOT: Fleeing hunters in a forest, a pregnant white mare takes refuge in a knot of the World Tree. For seven years plus seven she feeds her son, Treeshaker, before he embarks on a quest to destroy the three dragons that have captured the three princesses of the kingdom. Joined by his brothers Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, he seeks the entrance to the Underworld in order to battle the monsters.

BACKGROUND:

  • The narrative takes its inspiration from around half-a-dozen variations of a folk legend (which itself exists in over fifty forms). The canonical version is “Fehérlófia” as related by the Hungarian poet László Arany, though Jankovics’ rendition often departs from this source.
  • Jankovics’ decision to adopt an experimental animation style proved to be a double-edged sword. The film’s singular appearance grew famous only after years of word-of-mouth percolation; it was unmarketable at the time of its release, and Jankovics found only fleeting acclaim (and no work whatsoever) outside of his native Hungary.
  • Jankovics discounts any assertions about having taken psychedelics, claiming instead he merely wished to respect the fantastical grandeur of the source material.
  • The titular White Mare takes on a warm, pinkish glow when near her son. This tonal effect was lost until the film’s recent restoration, the mare having appeared simply white in earlier washed-out prints.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Treeshaker striding confidently behind row upon row of modern buildings in silhouette as a horrible brown smog obscures the scene: a mythical hero boldly facing modernity.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Bubble-beard gnome; twelve-headed skyscraper monster

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It might be impossible to find another feature-length animation that is simultaneously so stylized while feeling so organic, or with such vibrant colors telling so heroic a tale. Every cel is a stunning piece of art that seamlessly morphs into the next jaw-dropper. The curious source material lends a further twist: ancient Central European folklore channeled through a 20th-century animator toiling behind the Iron Curtain.


Re-release trailer for Son of the White Mare

COMMENTS: Marcell Jankovics’ introductory dedication declares Continue reading 17*. SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SON OF THE WHITE MARE (1981)

Fehérlófia

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Son of the White Mare has been officially added to the Apocryphally Weird list. Please visit the official entry.

DIRECTED BY: Marcell Jankovics

FEATURING: Voices of György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth

PLOT: A divine white mare gives birth to a son, the Tree-Shaker, who is destined to destroy three dragons in the Underworld who are holding captive three mythical princesses.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Marcell Jankovics puts the limitless possibilities of animation on display for this mythic tale. Abstraction and form combine to move the story along in a way that would be stylistically impossible with any other medium, all infused with the most vibrant palette I’ve ever seen in a movie. Son of the White Mare‘s epic nature and ancient roots are perfectly represented by the timeless feel of the nonstop delights to the eyes.

COMMENTS: This movie, I’ve been told, has been hovering around the site’s periphery for quite a while now, with us forebearing discussion until we could watch a high-quality, non-YouTube posting of Jankovics’ iconic masterpiece. With the 4K, re-mastered version from Arbelos Film which screened at the tail-end of this year’s Fantasia Festival, that time has come. Some quick research suggests that a disc release has not yet been determined, but considering the three years of work put into the project by a dedicated multi-national team (under the guidance of Marcell Jankovics himself), it’s bound to made available. Some day soon. Like in early 2020. Hopefully.

In the meantime, let me try to regale you with my poor words what Jankovics and his crew put together almost forty years ago. The film begins with a flash, as a pregnant white horse flees across the screen from a horde of nasty, jagged pursuers. Finding protection in the Earth Tree, she bears a human son, an eager boy who grows to become known as “Tree-Shaker.” He is told the story of his father’s downfall and, after finding his brothers (“Stone-Crumbler” and “Iron Temperer”), he looks for the entrance to the Underworld after outsmarting the Seven Colored Gnome by stealing his beard. With his brothers’ help he forges the beard into a mighty weapon that aids him as he seeks to free the kingdom’s princesses trapped in castles, guarded jealously by twisted versions of their former beaus.

It would be next to impossible to describe how magnificent the animation is. Much of its motion defies Euclidean geometry. To get the vibe, I recommend an image search. But even beyond its presentation, its narrative is well worth a mention. The time-tested methods of storytelling—tasks and goals in groups of three; heroes of impossible skill and origins; ultimate good fighting ultimate evil—are all present. This is not surprising; what took me aback (in a good way) was the fusion of this ancient technique with the interwoven warnings against modernity. Of the three multi-headed dragons fought by Tree-Shaker, two are manifestations of modern man: a seven-headed, dozen-gunned tank beast and a truly menacing, twelve-headed, ever-shifting skyscraper monster. Obviously there is a message here, one that slipped passed the well-practiced Communist censors of the day.

If you’ve patiently waited to watch this movie, please continue to do so. The impending release will be of a print that doesn’t look like it has aged at all. I know that I can get very excited about movies that others find ho-hum (or worse); but, for those of you who’ve seen some version of Son of the White Mare, and to those many others who have doubtless heard its praises sung on high, it lives up to whatever expectations of wonderment you could possibly harbor. Whoever gets the task of certifying this gem, I hope they’re up to it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The art style is incredible: pastel and clashing colours are everywhere and are used to paint very trippy and beautiful art. The animation is fluid, with shapes morphing into others and back seamlessly – a road becomes a snake, the gap between two faces changes into a goblet – but these must be seen to grant them their full justice.”–Simon Brand, PopOptiq

CAPSULE: RUBEN BRANDT, COLLECTOR (2018)

DIRECTED BY: Milorad Krstic

FEATURING: Voices of Iván Kamarás, Gabriella Hámori, Zalán Makranczi

PLOT: Ruben Brandt is a psychiatrist for a group of skilled art thieves who show their appreciation by stealing thirteen masterpieces in an effort to help their therapist conquer his nightmares.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ruben Brandt, Collector is weird, in a way, but not the way we’re looking for, and not the way you might expect.

COMMENTS: It begins with a heist gone wrong: Mimi (Gabriella Hámori) has been hired to steal a priceless diamond from the Louvre, but gets distracted by a beautiful Egyptian hand-fan halfway through the job. The ensuing chase through downtown Paris with Detective Kowalski (Zalán Makranczi) in pursuit is cleverer and better paced than most anything in modern action films. Dreams pile in references to the classics as Ruben Brandt (Iván Kamarás) copes with ever-worsening nightmares. Mafioso scumbags are dying to break into the art market, and there’s a “Cold War Café” frequented by ex-CIA and KGB spooks. The big-hearted looters assembled by Brandt include a thief with an overeating problem who is also handily (and literally) two-dimensional. The Art-Deco/Cubist world of Ruben Brandt, Collector is nothing short of amazing to look at.

But there is an issue looming over all of this: is this hyper-stylized, incredibly erudite cartoon weird? Every frame is arranged for maximum impact, and the tips-of-the-hat to famous artworks are innumerable. (Well, perhaps not innumerable: the end credits indicate that over fifty pieces are explicitly referenced within the movie, in addition to the ten or so nods to movies ranging from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Rambo: First Blood.) It is an odd and beautiful movie to behold, but the script compromises the atmosphere, making it feel at times as if it’s intended for a child audience. “Humorous” exchanges between the characters and the closing heist sequence are reminiscent of cartoons I’ve watched with my young niece. Still, I was happy to just sit back and soak in the glorious visual feast before me.

This imbalance is forgivable, and also makes perfect sense: Milorad Krstic is first and foremost a painter. By branching out into narrative cinema, he proves he can carry a visual motif for a whole movie. He also has an ear for music, with unlikely rock classics (like Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ “L’il Red Riding Hood”) and novel pop covers (Haley Reinhart’s version of “Oops, I Did It Again” turns it into a cabaret classic) augmenting Collector‘s off-kilter alternate reality. If Krstic ever pairs his work with a compelling script, we’d be certain to have the animated film of the decade on our hands.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an action thriller as surreal as it is familiar.”–Jared Mobarak, Buffalo Vibe (contemporaneous)

345. WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000)

Werckmeister harmóniák

“There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”

–William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice,” V., 1., 58-63

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz,

PLOT: Soft-spoken János takes care of his uncle, an aging musician and music theorist, in a small Hungarian town. One day a modest circus, featuring only a stuffed whale and a mysterious freak known as “the Prince” as its attractions, comes to town. János is impressed by the majesty of the whale and sneaks in to see it one night, and overhears the Prince declaring “Terror is here!”

Still from Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

BACKGROUND:

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Whale’s massive dead eye, juxtaposed with tiny humans.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Drunks enact the Solar System; eye of the Whale; the Prince speaks

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Werckmeister Harmonies is a bleak and obliquely allegorical parable in which a Whale and a Prince bring a local apocalypse to a poor but peaceful Hungarian town. A political horror movie that creeps over you slowly, wrapping you in a fog of mysterious dread.

Fan-made trailer for Werckmeister Harmonies

COMMENTS: How many times have you been at a bar at closing Continue reading 345. WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000)